The Triangle is home to more than 60 Indian restaurants, by my count, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve missed a few. I’ve eaten in most of them, and have reviewed 63 (some of which have since closed).
A couple of decades ago, the options were pretty much limited to the familiar curries and tandoori dishes of northern India. Then the number and variety of restaurants began to grow — a trickle at first, more recently swelling to a tidal wave that shows no signs of letting up. My vocabulary expanded along with my palate as I surfed that wave, discovering regional specialties from the vindaloo and fish curry of Goa on the west coast to the Manchurian chicken of the Indo-Chinese community in Kolkota to the dosa and sambar of southern India.
That experience by no means qualifies me as an expert, but I did think I knew a little something about the regional cuisines of India.
Then along came Anjappar. Anjappar, the first North Carolina location of an international chain founded in 1964 in Chennai, India, opened last summer in Cary. The restaurant’s specialty Chettinad cuisine is new to the area, and it opened my eyes to a whole new vocabulary.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the massive 13-page menu, a comprehensive glossary of the cuisine that thankfully includes descriptions of the dishes in English. Think of this review as a novice’s abridged edition, based on the highlights of my meals there.
▪ Kuzhi paniyaram: Rice-flour dough balls flecked with chopped onion, chiles and coconut, pan-fried. A shareable starter, and an enticing introduction to Chettinad cuisine.
▪ Assorted bajji: Blistery fritters of potato, onion and fiery green chiles in a chickpea flour batter, served with mint-cilantro chutney. The region’s emphatic — and addictive — answer to vegetable pakoras.
▪ Golden pomfret tava fry: A whole golden pomfret (a white-fleshed fish with a mild flavor and a firm, meaty texture), marinated in spices, fried in a large pan called a tava, and cut crosswise before serving. Tasty, but watch for bones!
▪ Chettinad pepper chicken: Bite size morsels of boneless chicken stir-fried in a kadai (an Indian wok) with onions, curry leaves and a complex masala of spices. Add rice, and this could easily be a main course.
▪ Mutton sukka varuval: Bone-in (and somewhat fatty) chunks of mutton in a funky curry spice blend. An acquired taste.
▪ Naatu kozhi masala: aka “country chicken,” this is a truly rustic tomato and onion-based curry featuring what, judging by its chewiness, is an old stewing hen. Not sure if you’re supposed to eat the pinfeathers that are still attached in places, but I’ll pass.
▪ Ennai kathirikkai kuzhambu: Eggplant simmered in a pungent tamarind sauce. It’s only moderately spicy by Chettinad standards, though, and the flavor grows on you.
▪ Iddyapam: Steamed rice noodles and coconut milk, served on a banana leaf. A soothing counterpoint to the bold flavors interwoven throughout Chettinad cuisine.
▪ Tandoori chicken: OK, now we’re on more familiar turf — more or less. A coating of spices amps up the heat a couple of notches above the northern Indian tandoori norm, but the clay oven-cooked chicken is succulent and it’s served on the traditional sizzling cast iron skillet.
▪ Lamb biryani: Another deceptively familiar name. The Chettinad version is made with seeraga samba rice, a small-grained rice preferred in the region over basmati. If you’re a biryani fan, this one won’t disappoint.
▪ Chettinad vegetable kuruma: Don’t let the innocuous-looking color of this one fool you. Beneath that pale, cashew-thickened sauce lurks a surprisingly potent kick.
▪ Veechu parotta: A thin flatbread (so thin it arrives folded like a small dosa) cooked on a tava. Anjappar offers nine variations on the parotta theme, from plain to kothu parotta, which serves up the bread in pieces simmered in a spicy masala sauce. The menu also devotes a separate category to naan, but parotta is definitely worth a try.
There’s also an extensive selection of dosa and other dishes that Chettinad cuisine shares with its neighboring regions in southern India. For that matter, most fans of Indian cuisine in general will recognize the names of several dishes sprinkled throughout the listings — gobi Manchurian, chicken tikka masala, prawn 65 and bhindi masala, to name a few. Just be advised that they may be spicier here than what you’re used to.
If you’d prefer to ease your way into Chettinad cuisine, one of the thali samplers (choose from five vegetarian and non-vegetarian options) is just what the doctor ordered. Alternatively, you could hit the Mega Lunch Buffet that’s offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Located in Stone Creek Village, Anjappar’s decor is a decided notch above the strip mall ethnic eatery norm with its dramatic contemporary space and highlights including large paintings of rural scenes and a wooden canoe suspended from the high ceiling. Local franchisee Prakash Sambath, who opened the restaurant because he longed for the food of his birthplace, already has begun expanding the restaurant into the adjoining space.
Clearly, he’s not the only fan of Chettinad cuisine in the area. You can count me among the growing number of newcomers to the fan club.
101 Ledgestone Way, Cary
Rating: 3 stars
Atmosphere: casual, contemporary
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: eager to please, generally attentive
Recommended: kuzhi paniyaram, assorted bajji, ennai kathirikkai kuzhambu, tandoori chicken, lamb biryani
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.